After blowing audiences' minds with The Dark Knight in 2008, Christopher Nolan takes it a step further with a psychological action mystery in Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page. The infamous director sat down with Buzzine to talk about dreams, the significance of the score in his films, and the meaning behind this mysterious movie...
Izumi Hasegawa: Have you been fascinated by dreams in your lifetime? And do you think differently about them since working on this film?
Christopher Nolan: I’ve been fascinated by dreams my whole life, since I was a kid, and I think the relationship between movies and dreams is something that’s always interested me, and I liked the idea of trying to portray dreams on film. I’d been working on the script for some time, really about ten years in the form that you’ve seen it in, with this idea of this kind of heist structure. I think really, for me, the primary interest in dreams and in making this film is this notion that, while you’re asleep, you can create an entire world that you’re also experiencing without realizing that you’re doing that. I think that says a lot about the potential of the human mind, especially the creative potential. It’s something I find fascinating.
IH: You’ve done a great job of keeping this film mysterious for the past year. Is there a danger that, at a certain point, even secrecy becomes a form of hype? And how do you balance that with what you want people to know about this film?
CN: It’s certainly difficult to balance marketing a film and putting it out there to everybody while wanting to keep it fresh for the audience. My most enjoyable movie-going experiences have always been going to a movie theater, sitting there and the lights go down, and a film comes on the screen that you don’t know everything about, and you don’t know every plot turn and every character movement that’s going to happen. I want to be surprised and entertained by a movie, so that’s what we’re trying to do for the audience. Obviously, we also have to sell the film; it’s a balance that I think Warner’s is striking very well. I suppose that, at a point, keeping something secret does lend itself to its own degree of hype, but I don’t really think of it as secrecy. We invite the audience to come and see it based on some of the imagery and some of the plot ideas and the premise, but we don’t want to give everything away. I think too much is given away too often in movie marketing today.
IH: The score and the sound design for this film are phenomenal; it’s almost like another character. Can you talk about that a little bit — how you constructed that?
CN: I like films where the music and the sound design, at times, are almost indistinguishable, and one of the interesting things that happened early on is the Edith Piaf song (“Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”) — it was always in the script. Long before Marion [Cotillard] came on the film, it had always been that choice of song, and right at the beginning of our post-production process, I had to make the decision of: Do I get the sound department or do I get the music department? Do I get Hans [Zimmer] to manipulate that track until it sounds as if you’re hearing it through the dream, where it slows down and gets massive and all the rest? There was an interesting way to go. What I decided to do was give it to Hans and let him run with it and see if, in some way, it might inform elements of the score, because we talked in early conversations about how, toward the action climax of the film, there was going to be a need for the score to interweave seamlessly with this source cue, which is an extremely difficult technical thing to do.
IH: Ken Watanabe is the second-billed actor in this film. Why did you pay to hire him so desperately — the reason and the benefit? Could you talk about that?
CN: I had worked with Ken on Batman Begins and I had such a good time in the days we worked together, I really wanted to find something else to do where I could work with him for longer and give him a bigger thing to do, and really it’s just been a complete pleasure. He’s just a wonderful actor to work with, and I think his work in the film is extraordinary and really adds immeasurably to what Inception is.
IH: Can you tell us a little more about the Fred Astaire fight sequence and the training for it, and the zero-G situation in the elevator?
CN: The thing I just want to point out that people might not be aware of is that we had a stunt guy who looks exactly like Joe [Gordon-Levitt] made up perfectly, and he stood there on set every day for three weeks and didn’t do a thing ’cause Joe insisted on doing absolutely everything himself, apart from, as I’ve been reminded, one shot where the stunt guy performed. Everything else he did himself, and he just did the most incredible job with these bizarre rigs and these bizarre sort of torture devices.
IH: You listed Pink Floyd’s The Wall as one of your primary influences. The dreams in that are very sexualized, which is something that doesn’t appear very much in this film. Was that something you shied away from?
CN: There are certain areas — when you’re talking about dreams, the analysis of dreams, and how you might examine them in the film — that you do want to avoid because they would probably be either too disturbing for the sort of action film genre that we’re working in, or funny. So one of the things, tonally, that I talked about with Leo [DiCaprio] is never tipping over into comedy, this funny version. One of the things all these guys have done in their performances, which I think is extraordinary, is that they’ve created very subtle differences in the way the characters appear in the dream levels and in reality — they’ve never made it funny. They’ve never taken it to that comedic place. And certainly I think there’s probably a great comedy version of this movie somewhere, but I don’t want to make it.
IH: I’m surprised to hear that Edith Piaf’s song was always in the film. Did you want to touch on the concept of cinema as a layer of our dreaming?
CN: For me, when you look a the idea of being able to create a limitless world and use it almost as a playground for action and adventure and so forth, I naturally gravitate toward cinematic worlds, whether it’s the Bond films and things like that… So without being too self-conscious about it or without too much intention as I was writing it, I certainly allowed my mind to wander where it would naturally, and I think a lot of the tropes from different genres of movies, heist films, spy films, that kind of thing, they therefore sort of naturally sit in that world.
IH: What was your research into dreams and science? How did you come up with architects and their designs?
CN: I don’t actually tend to do a lot of research when I’m writing. I took the approach in writing Inception that I did when I was writing Memento — about memory and memory loss — which is I tend to just examine my own process of, in this case, dreaming, in Memento‘s case memory, and try to analyze how that works and how that might be changed and manipulated — how a rule set might emerge from my own process. I think a lot of what I find you want to do with research is just confirming things you want to do. If the research contradicts what you want to do, you tend to go ahead and do it anyway. So at a certain point, I realized that if you’re trying to reach an audience, being as subjective as possible and really trying to write from something genuine is the way to go. Really it’s mostly from my own process, my own experience.
IH: Did you bring this in on time and on budget?
CN: We did. We actually had a very, very efficient crew and this very professional bunch of actors. We were able to hammer through it and we finished early, and we finished under budget, so we really brought the thing off very, very smoothly, which was great. We try to be as efficient as possible because, in my process, I think that actually helps the work. I like having the pressure of time and money and really trying to stick to the parameters we’ve been given. It went very smoothly.
IH: Did this get a Bond movie out of your system?
CN: Quite a bit of it, yeah.
IH: Did you consider 3D? What was the decision?
CN: We looked at shooting on various different formats before we went to shoot, including 3D technology, but also Showscan, 65mm, which we eventually fixed on. Then, when we edited the film, we looked at the post-conversion process and did some very good tests. But when I really looked at the time period we had and where my attention needed to be in finishing the film, I decided that I didn’t have enough time to do it to the standard I would have liked. I think the question of 3D really is one for audiences, in a sense. It’s perfectly possible to post-convert a film very well. I like not having glasses when I watch a movie, and I like being able to see a very bright, immersive image. So I think, at the end of the day, I’m extremely happy to be putting the film out with 35mm film prints very brightly projected with the highest possible image quality. That’s really what excites me.
IH: I read that you first pitched Inception around the time you made Insomnia. Can you share that pitch with us? And how did that change once you had the script written?
CN: When I first pitched the studio the project, it was about ten years ago, and I’d just finished Insomnia. Really, the pitch was very much the movie you see, although I hadn’t figured out the emotional core of the story, and that took me a long time to do. I think I sort of grew into the film, in a sense. I had the heist theme, I had the relationship between architecture and dreams, the idea that you would use an architect to design a dream for somebody else and all of that. All of those things were in place for several years, but it took me a long time to find this idea of emotionally connecting with the story, because when I look at heist movies — and I wanted it to feel like a heist movie — they tend to be almost deliberately superficial; they tend not to have high emotional stakes, so what I realized over the years — and the thing I got stuck on — was that doesn’t work when you’re talking about dreams because the whole thing about the human mind and dreams is that it has to have emotional consequences and resonances. So that was really my process over the years — finding my relationship with the love story, the tragedy of it with the emotional side.
IH: This is your first large-scale idea based on an original idea. What gave you the confidence to take that leap of faith, and does that point the way for you to make more original projects going forward rather than working from existing material?
CN: I think the thing that some people find surprising about the source material, if you will — whether it’s a comic book adaptation, a remake of another film, or if it’s a sequel — these are all things that I’ve done before – an adaptation of a short story. The interesting thing about an original concept is that — particularly with the ten-year gap it took me from my initial set of ideas and finishing the screenplay — by the time you get there, you’ve lived with those ideas for so long that it really isn’t that different from working from somebody else’s story, for example. As with Memento, when I adapted my brother’s short story, the same thing happens – you take this story on as your own, and because the screenwriting process is a very long one for me — it takes years really to put a script together — by the time you get there at the end, it starts to feel a little bit irrelevant as to where you started from. So the experience has been quite similar, in fact.
IH: This feels like a film that seems it only could get made because of that commercial success you’ve enjoyed. But does that freedom to get it made empower you to push the boundaries of what you can do, or does it put more pressure on you to fit it into perhaps a slightly more conventional structure or shape?
CN: I was asked, after doing The Dark Knight, whether I felt any particular pressure on the next film, and it’s not really the case. I put it this way: I felt a responsibility. It’s not that often that you get to have a large commercial success and then have something that you want to do that you can excite people about, so it’s a great opportunity, and the responsibility we felt in doing that was to make what we felt was the best film possible, the most interesting film possible, because obviously, with the success of The Dark Knight, we were in a position where the studio was prepared to put a lot of faith in us and trust in us to really do something special. Those opportunities are very rare for filmmakers, and I felt a responsibility to really try to do something memorable with it.
IH: Do any of your own dreams stand out that you don’t mind sharing with us? And what are you doing now? What’s different than when you started in Hollywood 12 years ago?
CN: As far as the dreams go, there are times in my life where I experienced lucid dreaming, which is a big feature of Inception – the idea of realizing you’re in a dream and therefore trying to change or manipulate it in some way. That’s a very striking experience for people who have it. It’s clearly in the film and a big part of it. As far as my film-making approach, it might be hard for people to understand, but for me, the film-making process has always been the same. So when I was doing Following, which was shot with friends one day a week for a year and put together that way, it was exactly the same process. I think for me, what I’m doing on set is I’m watching things happen as an audience member and trying to just look at: What’s the image we’re photographing? How will that advance the story, and what will the next image be? That process really hasn’t changed for me, and it’s strangely similar no matter how big the film gets.
Warner Bros. Pictures' 'Inception' is released on July 16, 2010.